Yehiel and I met Elliott at the appliance repairman’s shed on a side street in South Jerusalem.
Elliott Horowitz, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, had already paid for the almost-new washing machine, with cash that friends have pledged to repay. We wrestled the heavy white hunk of metal into the back of Yehiel’s undersized station wagon, and set off – three guys with skullcaps and graying beards driving to Hebron with a washing machine for a Palestinian stonecutter.
It was Elliott’s idea. Nearly two weeks ago, he read an article by Gideon Levy, describing an incident in Hebron. The short version is that Ghassan Burqan, a stonecutter living in the Israeli-controlled side of Hebron, saved for months and bought a washing machine. Since he’s not allowed to drive a car to his home – Palestinian vehicles are banned on that stretch of street – he parked nearby and carried it on his head. With him were his wife and five kids and his brother, who has been psychologically “impaired” since an attempt to study in the U.S. ended in culture shock. Border Police – the paramilitary cops responsible for keeping order in the occupied town – stopped him and asked to see what was in the box. His brother got upset; men in uniform poured into the area; Ghassan ended up in jail, badly bloodied and accused of trying to steal a gun from the Border Police. The extremely unusual part is that a military court, and then an appeals court, ordered him released on bail. A Palestinian accused of attacking security forces normally doesn’t get bail. The judges didn’t like the prosecution case at all.
But the washing machine had disappeared.
Usually when you read something like this, Elliott said afterward, all you can do is get depressed. But this time the washing machine was missing. He was thinking of that a few days afterward, in the crowded funeral hall in Givat Shaul, listening to eulogies for Gerald Cromer.
Gerald, among other things, was Elliott’s faculty colleague, a criminologist at Bar-Ilan, an Orthodox peace activist who spent his career seeking to understand the secret mechanics of violence and extremism. He was also a founder of Kehillat Yedidya, the progressive Orthodox synagogue to which Yehiel and I belong, and an activist in more efforts for human decency than I will try to list here. At age 63, he was diagnosed with cancer and died within a few weeks.
Let’s buy a washing machine in Gerald’s memory, Elliott suggested to me. It seemed like a good way to honor him, because if Gerald were around he would have done it himself. I sent out an email to several dozen friends from Kehillat Yedidya, offering them the chance to contribute, and quickly ran into a problem unusual among fundraisers: Too many people wanted to give. I had to close the list. Yehiel, who works for Rabbis for Human Rights, offered to drive the washing machine down.
So we found ourselves on the road to Hebron, driving past the checkpoints, and the orchards and vineyards on the ancient terraces carved in the green hills, and the yellow stone-faced apartment buildings of the settlements, packed together like protesters at an immense demonstration against a reasonable future. At the checkpoints, the soldiers surely assumed we were three settlers. We did not stop to disabuse them of their stereotypes and explain why we had a washing machine in back.
We came in via Kiryat Arba, the settler town crowded up against Hebron. Kiryat Arba is a quietly nightmarish place, an inside-out place. Elliott, another calm man who has carefully documented and footnoted the history of violence, had his camera, and we stopped at the park dedicated to Meir Kahane, described in an inscription as one who loved Jews, with no mention of his volcanic hatred of Arabs. Inside the park is the grave of Baruch Goldstein, physician and mass murderer, who gunned down 29 Palestinians as they recited Ramadan prayers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs-Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. The gravestone describes him as having “clean hands and a pure heart.” Kiryat Arba is a place where light has been transmogrified to darkness, darkness to light, where faith in He who created all in His image has been reversed, rendered into its photo negative.
Musa and Ghassan met us in front of the Tomb-Mosque. He had to walk; the road is closed to Palestinian cars. That segment of Hebron is held by Israel for the safety of the small community of settlers within the city – people known among other settlers for their extremism. On top of the Palestinian store across the street from the tomb is a square concrete army emplacement with narrow slits at the top. On the lawn near the Tomb stands a Border Police emplacement. On walls and metal shutters of closed Palestinian shops, settlers have scrawled “Death to Arabs” in Hebrew.
Musa and Ghassan crowded into the back seat with me, not easy because Ghassan is a big man and also because piled between the seats, we had bags of hametz – bread, flour, noodles, the leavened food a Jew removes from his house for Pesah – that we’d brought to give Ghassan. The streets were empty. We drove to his house. He pointed out the checkpoint a couple of hundred meters away where he’d been stopped by the Border Police. As we got to Ghassan’s building a jeep pulled up, and a Border Policeman asked us what we were doing here. “We’re on a family visit,” Yehiel said.
“A family visit?” the man in the dark green uniform said. He clearly could not put this together. Yehiel told him we had come to give away our hametz. This made even less sense. The jeep stopped at the end of the street so the men inside could watch us while we unloaded the washing machine and the bags of food. I wonder what they are thinking this evening, and whether they told of this weird event when they returned to their base.
We went up to the small apartment where Ghassan lives with his wife and 5 kids. On the living room wall is painted a large simple image representing Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Ghassan’s two and a half year old daughter came in and bashfully greeted each of us by taking a hand in hers, kissing it, and touching it with her forehead. Hebron, explained Musa, is a very traditional town.
Ghassan brought out cold drinks and apples and cucumbers. He spoke to us with Musa translating. Musa told us that several years ago, after four settlers were murdered in a terror attack outside Hebron, settlers rampaged in the town, and Musa pointed to a window with a crack in the glass. It had been hit with a stone hurled from the street.
Elliott explained that we had brought the machine in memory of our friend, and that we came because we were religious – not despite being religious – because this is what we believe Judaism requires. He looked a bit uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be necessary to explain this. But in Hebron madness is presumed, and sanity must be explained.
Yehiel, Elliot, Ghassan and Ghassan’s daughter
Ghassan brought out his legal papers, which I photographed with Elliott’s camera. There was a transcript from a hearing where the military prosecution asked to have him held till the end of legal proceedings. Ghassan, lacking money for a lawyer, represented himself. The judge noted that a charge of attacking soldiers is normally reason to keep a suspect locked up. He also noted that the police had failed to bring testimony from any witnesses, and that the police themselves only claimed that Ghassan had slapped a Border Policeman’s arm, and that it was quite possible that Ghassan was in fact only defending his brother. The judge ordered him released, and the prosecution appealed. The appeals judge not only upheld the lower court’s decision, but ordered that the transcripts of the hearings be sent to the Department for Investigating Police.
I’ll note that these hearings were not trials; the judges couldn’t rule on guilt or innocence. But military courts are not normally friendly places for a Palestinian without a lawyer. The implication of those transcripts is that the military judges believed that the proper suspects in this case wore uniforms.
I’m not claiming that bringing one washing machine will bring peace, just as I wouldn’t claim that a donation to charity will end poverty. But as Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not expected to finish the task, and you are not free to refrain from it.” I’m sure Gerald would be glad we brought the machine to Ghassan, and I’m grateful for friends who helped.
We traded phone numbers, and suggested ways that Ghassan could get a lawyer, and said goodbye. And the we drove through the terraced hills back to South Jerusalem.
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